Adventures in Bear Country

With an estimated three-quarters of a million black bears roaming the nation, the chances of encountering one in the wild are increasing.

Cover Story

October 28, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | By Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

We don't have to put all the food away, do we?"

Those were my husband's famous words, but fortunately, not his famous last words.

In late August, our family embarked on its first full-fledged camping expedition to Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. We pitched our borrowed tent in the sprawling Big Meadows Area campground, aware that bears were a common sight around the park, but not truly expecting to see one.

Park literature, however, is explicit about storing food in car trunks to prevent bears from rifling coolers and packs. Despite my beloved's line of questioning, dinner was followed by several long treks from the walk-in campsite to the car, where we stored all gorp and groceries.

That first evening passed uneventfully, but the next morning, as bacon fried on the cook stove, a glossy black bear padded within 50 feet of our site.

I rousted my sleeping sons, ages 10 and 13, and we spent the morning wary, yet amused as the bear, christened "Borf" for no particular reason, took his sweet time meandering around the campground, at one point sniffing a tent where a couple still slept.

His presence both excited and frightened us city folks. Borf looked kind of scary and kind of like Paddington. The farther away he went, the more he looked like Paddington.

But he transformed our relationship with Shenandoah, just as his brethren have transformed the rural experience for other adventurers around the country who are not used to meeting large, wild creatures beyond the occasional deer.

Wildlife and wilderness management practices have helped boost the Eastern United States' black bear population close to pre-colonial numbers. An estimated three-quarters of a million black bears roam the nation. As human and bear habitats increasingly overlap, chance encounters with Ursus americanus in states as far-flung as Colorado, New Jersey, Washington, West Virginia and Maryland are on the rise.

Grizzly bears, once common throughout most of the western United States, were nearly eradicated by hunters and loss of habitat in the 1950s. Today, they've made a comeback, mainly in the Northwest and northern Rockies, but remain on the endangered species list. Backcountry encounters with the majestic native carnivore occur, but the odds of meeting an omnivorous black bear are still much greater.

For national parks with thriving bear populations and millions of annual visitors, the "competing priorities" of wildlife management and serving the public can be a tricky one, says Joan Anzelmo, spokeswoman for Grand Teton National Park.

"The more people want to get out into the backcountry and the more people come to explore, the more they push into habitat shared by bears and other animals," Anzelmo says.

Visitors "really have to be educated and informed before leaving an urban area and coming to the woods," she says.

Bear attacks are rare, but they do happen. In August, a 93-year-old New Mexico woman was mauled to death in her home by a black bear. Last year, a 50-year-old woman in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee was killed by a mother bear and her yearling. A month later, a 24-year-old Canadian biathlete, jogging north of Quebec City on an army base, was fatally attacked by a 165-pound female black bear.

Several non-fatal maulings have also been recorded in recent years. A new book, The Bear's Embrace: A True Story of Survival by Patricia Van Tighem (Pantheon, $23), details the author's recovery from a 1983 mauling by a grizzly bear in Canada.

Black bears who attack are tracked and killed, as are those perceived as chronic aggressors, including a mother bear with a record of plaguing a Yosemite campground. She was destroyed last summer.

'Powerful animals'

Bear numbers have grown to the point where it's just as important to be ready to meet one as it is to have the proper hiking gear for a walk in the woods.

In Maryland, the black bear population has climbed to 327, a 64 percent increase since 1990. "Knock on wood, there have been no injuries in the last 100 years or so," says Steven Bittner, a forest game project manager for the state. But there is always a first time, he says. "They're powerful animals. They could put a serious hurt on you when they want to."

With so many black bears out and about, there have come record numbers of nuisance complaints from farmers, orchard owners and beekeepers, as well as bereft pet owners. Last summer, in New Mexico and other mountainous states, drought drove black bears into villages and towns in search of food.

Black bears have paid visits to campsites and cabins in Western Maryland, Bittner says. At a construction site, one creature broke a windshield and helped himself to a peanut butter sandwich in the car.

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